Andrea Dovizioso's manager arrived in Le Mans on Friday morning, and by Friday afternoon, the Italian had a new two-year contract with Ducati, provisional pole after FP2, and a new lap record. Not a bad start to the weekend, and a harbinger of good things to come, you might think. This is after all not particularly a Ducati track, yet here he was, on top of the timesheets.
Perhaps having his future settled helped, but Dovizioso has been an expert at excluding distractions from his race weekends. The simple fact is that the Ducati man was quick at Jerez, and is quick here, because he is in good form, and the bike is working really well. Dovizioso heads into qualifying feeling confident.
But there is a fly in the ointment, and it is Márquez-shaped, as always. Dovizioso had been pretty quick throughout the first part of FP2, just a couple of tenths behind the leader Márquez. Then in his final run, he fitted a new soft rear slick, dropped six tenths of a second off his best time and set a new lap record around Le Mans. It was an impressive showing of blistering speed.
Dovizioso had demoted Marc Márquez to second place, yet that still left Dovizioso much to fear. Márquez may have been nearly two tenths faster than Dovizioso, but Dovizioso had set his quickest lap on a new soft rear with just four laps on it. Márquez had set his best time on an old hard rear tire with twelve laps on it. In terms of outright race pace, Márquez looks very hard to beat.
But it is still only Friday, and the difference between the soft and the hard rear tires is not as great as you might think. After all, Dovizioso had set a 1'32.562 on an old soft tire with nineteen laps on it, or about two-thirds race distance. Race pace for both Dovizioso and Márquez looks to be very strong indeed.
The best form of flattery
Some of the Honda's speed came from the new fairings HRC had homologated for the two Repsol RC213Vs. The fairings for Márquez and teammate Dani Pedrosa bear an uncanny resemblance to the ones which appeared on the Yamaha at the end of last year. A mustache-shaped winglet, looping back to the lower fairing. It had been a big help here at Le Mans, where the riders struggle a lot to keep the front wheel down in acceleration.
"It's different, but improves in some areas, especially it creates a little bit less wheelie," Marc Márquez said. His teammate concurred. "Mainly the biggest effect is on the wings, so today we tried the wings on the last exit, and I could feel there is much less wheelie on the straight," Dani Pedrosa said. "So on a track like here, there is an advantage, because you can be more relaxed on the straight, not fighting so much with the throttle and the wheelie on the exit of the corners. But it's the first time, so I need to do more work on it, but it looks like it matches this kind of track more."
Back to back, track to track
The two riders had tested the fairing three times, at the Jerez private test, the Monday test after the race at Jerez, and at Mugello. The new fairing was better for reducing wheelie, but its effectiveness varied from track to track. At Le Mans, it is vital, but at other tracks, the Repsol Hondas will be able to use the fairing they started the year with. Switching between the two is simple: unbolt one set of aerodynamic appendages from the standard fairing, and bolt on the other set.
This does mean that Honda have used up their won aerodynamic update for the season. It was a calculated gamble, Marc Márquez admitted. "We used the joker, because we believe that in this race track the fairing can help," he said. Combining this new fairing with the old one meant they had something which will work at every track, Márquez believed.
Electronics? No thanks!
The fact that the Movistar Yamahas finished in third and fourth, and ahead of the Monster Tech3 Yamaha interloper Johann Zarco, was positive news. Both Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales were relatively upbeat on Friday, Rossi more relieved at being quick here after struggling at the private test in Mugello, he said. "It's just Friday, but it was a good start," Rossi told his media debrief. "Sincerely, also more positive than I expected, because in Jerez, I knew that we have to suffer, but we made the test in Mugello, and also in Mugello I was quite slow. So I was very worried, also about the bike."
Le Mans was different, however. "In this track, our bike works very well, and I think that the M1 likes Le Mans, for the layout, and also this asphalt is very good, it has a lot of grip. And also I think the low temperature helps, because today was perfect, it was sunny but not very hot. So it was the perfect conditions for us. We have a lot less problems, also with the used tire I have a very good rhythm which is very important for the race. It's just Friday, but like this, it's a lot more fun compared to Jerez."
One possible explanation for the speed of the Yamahas – especially the factory Movistar bikes – is that the layout of Le Mans is much less demanding of the electronics. The toughest challenge for the electronics is long corners with partial throttle, before full throttle has to be applied. There are very few of those at Le Mans, its stop-and-go nature meaning the bike has to be stopped, turned quickly, then fired out of the corner on the fat part of the tire.
"In this track, historically you spin less, because the corners are shorter, and also because the asphalt has more grip, Rossi explained. "When these two things are together, the electronics are less important, so we suffer less. So this shows that this bike is good. For me, yes, we have just to improve in some areas, but it's not easy."
Short and sweet
Johann Zarco had a different perspective on the same issue. "I don’t really know why the Yamaha works so well here, Le Mans is a small track and you are never pushing the bike to the maximum as you really need to be smooth in all the corners," the Frenchman said. "Also the corner speed is quite important so that is why I think we are good with the Yamaha here, which is better for us. Also the pace of the Yamaha with the electronics and suspension is pretty good as you feel from starting the first laps immediately you are in a good range, so you can work on yourself and do small things, as you don’t need to change the bike to find the setup. Sometimes that it is difficult at other GPs but here we are in a good place immediately."
The top ten was full of surprises, though perhaps Jack Miller in sixth is no longer the surprise you would expect to see. The Pramac Ducati rider has been quick all season, and Le Mans was no exception. A bigger surprise is Pol Espargaro on the KTM, the bike performing well at the stop-and-go Le Mans. Both KTMs had been relatively quick in the morning, but Espargaro swapped a new set of mediums for an old set of softs, and immediately improved his lap time. Bradley Smith was not able to make the progress that his teammate did, as he was given test donkey work to do in verifying a frame they had tested in Jerez. With Aleix Esparagaro in tenth on the Aprilia, that made it five manufacturers in the top ten. But the whole top sixteen is within a second, so even the smallest mistake can be costly.
Dovi's Ducati Deal
Back to the contracts. Why had Dovizioso signed on with Ducati for two more years? "We have to be happy about this decision because last year we did an incredible season," he explained. "We fought for the championship until the last round. After five years I think we did a great job together. We were struggling a lot but at the end we fought for the championship. In the end, that is really good. This is another reason why I think it’s good to continue because you want something more. We have in front of us three years to try and get the result. We know how tough it is but we want to fight for that. I know a lot about Ducati. Ducati knows a lot about me. This creates a good situation inside the team, to try and work on the details, to try to work on the bike and fight for the championship."
That long history together was a reason to continue, but it did not mean he had not considered other factories. "It’s normal," Dovizioso said." The riders are egoistical (selfish). The riders have to be [selfish] in the way you think to be fast." But staying with Ducati meant being able to build on the experience that he has with the bike, and with the team, and that would have been the same if he had stayed for the same length of time with any factory. "I think with every manufacturer everything is the same situation."
"I think especially in the way I live the six years with Ducati it was important to stay in the same team, and improve together. I think we were in the same situation in 2013. Both we believe we can fight for the championship. In that time nobody believed that I can fight for the championship. And at that time, after Valentino’s story, nobody really believed in Ducati. That is the special thing, because we start in a really… I mean, I finished fourth the year before in Tech 3 which wasn’t too bad, but in any case, we started from the bottom together. We struggled a lot for many years but at the end we came back together. This is something special. This is the relation with Ducati. We created something important to put on the track. The relations are really important to get a result in the world championship. You know how tough it is to beat everybody."
With Dovizioso gone, the latest logjam in silly season has been removed, and a new round of haggling will commence. Jorge Lorenzo is trying to wait for a couple of races – Barcelona, where he will have to prove his worth to Ducati – to try to score a podium or two to boost his bargaining power. Lorenzo had been widely expected to go to Suzuki, but it seems that Suzuki are unhappy coming off a bad experience with Andrea Iannone – on current form, fast enough to deserve his job – and aren't interested in a new major star.
Instead, it is the name of Moto2 rookie Joan Mir being bandied about. That would align with Mir's interests, as he wishes to spend as little time as possible in Moto2. Mir is already being hailed as the next big thing, and on the evidence of FP2, he could well be just that. But we are still only four races in, and Suzuki's budgets and deadlines are tight. Suzuki would have to take a massive gamble on Mir, and hope he continues to show his brilliance for the rest of the year. But that is what the best MotoGP teams do: know the Moto2 field, and gamble on a young rider coming good.
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